Robert Graves: The Years with Laura 1926-1940
According to Laura's later fictionalized account, when Geoffrey failed to return from dinner with his aunt, she and Nancy hurried to the aunt's flat. Here the only definite news was of Geoffrey being 'out of England -with the right woman [in other words, his wife]'.38 It seemed most likely that Geoffrey and Norah would be in Ireland; and Robert was despatched immediately to bring them back.39
Geoffrey, however, had reached Paris, although Norah had no idea that he was on his way until :
a friend. ..knocked on my door to tell me that Geoffrey was downstairs and begged me to see him. Eventually I did. He begged me to go with him -he had run away from Laura. I was glad and consented to go off to Rouen for a few days (a second honeymoon). We had several days together and I felt all might be well and I was happy about this. ...40
Geoffrey Phibbs was not so happy. On the contrary, soon after arriving in Rouen he wrote a letter to Laura Riding, explaining that he had left her partly for Robert's sake, and partly for Norah's; and that (although he evidently felt that he had done the right thing) he was now 'terribly terribly unhappy'.41 The letter contained no return address;42 but the envelope bore a Rouen postmark, which gave his pursuers their first real lead.
The actual address was then tricked out of Geoffrey's aunt by Len Lye, who 'pretend[ed] he had a splendid job for him'.43
In the meantime, Norah remained happily unaware that Laura was on their track, until, on the morning of Saturday 6 April, 'after two days our peace and attempt at reconciliation were shattered. A waiter knocked on our door at 8 a.m. to tell us that three people wanted to see us -they had a most important statement to make.' The members of the Trinity had travelled all night, via Dieppe, and had come to announce to Norah that 'they must have made a mistake in shutting me out of the Holy Circle. ..and their mission now was to gather me in'. Norah, totally astonished by this new development, 'could only suggest we might have breakfast!44
Norah had already noticed to her disgust that Laura, 'I expect to fascinate Geoff ...had every Woolworth ornament on her, even sparkling buckles on her shoes !' And after breakfast 'a long morning' in the hotel was spent 'mostly in symbolic language and signs', presumably part of a cabbalistic ritual designed to draw Norah into the 'five-Iife'. Norah, however, was unimpressed by these sinister proceedings, and eventually left the others to their own devices while she went for a walk in Rouen. On her return she was told that lunch had been ordered in an hotel in some woods just outside the city ; and since she was feeling hungry she agreed to go with them.45
On the way, Laura stopped to buy yet another necklace with which to dazzle Geoffrey; and then, after an excellent lunch, Norah recalls that:
Geoff and I were told we must walk for half an hour in the woods and come back and report [my] decision. We walked. Geoff said if I didn't go with them, he wouldn't. I sensed he was tom. However, I said I wanted to keep sane, and nothing, not even losing Geoff, would induce me to go to what I thought was the mad house of Hammersmith. Even though I had been told Geoff and I would have our own flat - all physical contact would cease between Laura and Geoff (?) and that they would meet only to continue the great work -a dictionary. So I just said 'No'.46
Geoffrey declared again that he intended to stay with Norah; and then they walked back to the hotel to report their decision to the others.
Laura Riding, faced with the apparent wreckage of her plans, and the permanent loss of Geoffrey, lost control; and Norah later wrote a scathing description of how' "God" in the Public Lounge threw herself on the floor, had hysterics, threw her legs in the air and screamed. The manager got two waiters to remove this spectacle from the alarmed eyes of the wealthy French onlookers.'47 In Robert's more sympathetic version of the story, he describes the hotel as a 'hill-top where you [Laura] seemed to die'; and for him the event had another dimension which made it even more nightmarish: they had chosen to go to this hotel because it was on the site of the Rouen hospital to which Robert had been sent after his near- fatal wound on the Somme in I9I6. So it was the very place where he himself 'had seemed to die thirteen years before'. That night, as soon as Laura was well enough to travel, she and Robert and Nancy went 'immediately back' to England,48 arriving in Hammersmith late the following afternoon.
When Nancy reached the Avoca, where she had left a nurse in charge of the children, she was surprised to find that APG, Amy, Clarissa and Rosaleen were all on board, and in a highly anxious state because the children 'were showing off their dare-devil tricks -Jenny & Cath[erine] standing on their heads and Sam hanging head downwards from a rope over the deck II feet below'. Nancy mentioned that there had been 'an all-night chase with R & L of Geoffrey Phibbs who had bolted from them to Paris', but declined to comment further.49
In the meantime, Geoffrey and Norah Phibbs had returned to Paris to collect Norah's things, and had then set out for Lisheen. But, although Geoffrey had not been lured back to Hammersmith, Norah could see that he was 'clearly very upset'.50 Laura, as manipulative as ever, had written him a letter from Rouen station, begging him to remain silent about their past together. No doubt it was kind but firm, and, having read it, Geoffrey suddenly felt excluded from everything in the world that was worthwhile ; he began carrying the letter around with him 'as my most complete humiliation'.5I In the circumstances, Norah's 'dream of a second honeymoon became a nightmare. ...Geoffrey practically never spoke to me en route. Perhaps it was about this time that my ardour for him started to cool.'52 When they arrived at Lisheen, Geoffrey's mother greeted them warmly, and some peaceful days followed.
Laura, wrongly believing as the result of some ambiguous correspondences53 that Geoffrey was once again falling under her spell, did her idiosyncratic best to tighten the bonds between them. In Norah's words:
Strange objects started to arrive by post -bus tickets, bits of twisted wire, coins and coloured ribbons -accompanied by symbolic signs, which I didn't understand. Geoffrey was in turn annoyed or proud to feel important again.
However, the magic of Miss Riding didn't work. ...So she had the brilliant idea of sending her lover's wife, Nancy Nicholson, over to Sligo to plead her cause!54
Geoffrey was lying ill in bed, when a telegram arrived announcing Nancy's imminent arrival. His mother opened the telegram, showed it to Norah, told her that they should not mention it to Geoffrey, and then instructed the butler not to let Mrs Nicholson into the house. Instead, when she arrived, Nancy was shown round to the east verandah. There, as Norah later recalled, she and Mrs Phibbs were waiting:
in a piercing east wind. Nancy said she wanted to speak to Geoffrey -Mrs. Phibbs said she couldn't as he was ill and it was much too cold for him to come out. Nancy suggested it would be wiser to sit indoors, to which Mrs. Phibbs replied she did not wish to receive Mrs. Nicholson in her house. At this point I said Geoff must see the telegram as he was no good to me if he couldn't make up his mind whom he wanted or where he wanted to be. I brought the telegram up to Geoff who dressed and came down. He walked with Nancy along the back avenue until they were stopped by. ..Geoffrey's father -who. ..pointing at Nancy, shouted 'Get out of my grounds, you scarlet woman!'55
As he shouted, Mr Phibbs looked like 'a raging bull'; but Geoffrey held his ground, and told his father bluntly that he was 'so ashamed that, from that moment, he was changing his name from Phibbs to Taylor (his mother's name)'. Soon it was clear that Mr Phibbs's angry intervention had achieved precisely the opposite of what was intended, and had drawn Geoffrey and Nancy closer together than ever. By the time of Nancy's departure on the afternoon train from Sligo, Geoffrey had promised that he would do exactly as she asked, and follow her to London as soon as possible.
In the event he remained with Norah at Lisheen for another week (Norah herself was so unhappy that it later seemed to her like three) ; and then it was Norah who declared that she could not stand their life together any more, and was going back to Paris. The following day, probably Thursday 25 April, the two of them left Sligo. They journeyed together as far as London; but then Norah went on to France, while Geoffrey, instead of travelling to Hammersmith, caught a train to Cambridge, and then another to Hilton, to call on David Garnett.
The contents of the telegram, which he sent from there, and which arrived in Hammersmith on Friday 26 April, were a considerable shock. Phibbs declared very forcibly that it was impossible for him to rejoin the 'four-life' ;56 and Graves was immediately despatched to Hilton to bring him back to London. Norah later heard from David Garnett that, before setting out for Hilton, Robert made a telephone call in which he announced that he would 'kill Geoffrey if he wouldn't return to Laura',57 When, in his own words, Graves 'burst in upon' David Garnett, who was 'gulping his vintage port', he had no difficulty in persuading Phibbs to return with him after 'scandalising' Garnett with 'soldier's oaths'.58
That evening, Robert, Laura, Geoffrey and Nancy began a debate which raged on inconclusively for most of the night. Why had Geoffrey stayed away from them? What were his precise motives for doing so? Did he not care for Laura? Did he not wish to continue work on the dictionary? Could he not arrive at some 'clear decision' about his future which would also be acceptable to Laura? On and on and on, until they were all utterly exhausted.
In the early hours of Saturday 27 April 1929, they snatched a little sleep, and then the debate was resumed. At length Geoffrey, much emboldened by the knowledge that Nancy was falling in love with him, said quite brutally that he was 'not going to continue to live with or near Laura'.59
Laura could take no more. It was not long since there had been a sensation in the press about the suicide of another young woman poet, Charlotte Mew, who had died after drinking a powerful disinfectant called Lysol; and, in an agony of mind and spirit, Laura Riding decided to emulate her example. She drank some Lysol, but evidently not enough, for it had no immediate effect. Then, while the others watched in horror, she leaped from the window of 3S(A).60 It was a fourth-floor flat, with nothing to break her fall but the 'stone area'61 far down below, and Laura must have expected to be killed. She herself was later to remember chiefly how dignified she had been: 'sitting on the [window-]ledge ...quite calmly, even smiling a little, and saying, "Goodbye, chaps." '62 Robert's memories, however, centred on her 'doom-echoing shout'63 as she hurtled towards almost certain death.
Chapter 3: The Shout
Book Three: The Shout (1929)
Changing Perceptions: The Poets of the Great War
During the spring and summer of 2005, after an approach from a Publisher Cecil Woolf, I worked up one of my most successful lectures into a thin volume.